on 4 June 2014
The main idea in this book is perfectly summarised by Köhler in the following quote:
"[In] the last radio address [Hitler] gave to the country, in January 1945, he repeated: 'Only he [probably should be He i.e. God] who gave this task can release me from it.' . . . The nature of this task was certainly not to pursue a set of political aims, that is, to arrange the political and social realities of the time in the interests of the nation whose Chancellor he was. Reality meant for him the task of transforming the world into a Wagnerian drama..." Köhler, p.270.
Köhler claims that the real origin of WWII and the Holocaust lies in Hitler's crazed desire to transform the world into a huge opera production. If Hitler's desire to enact opera on the world's stage can't explain him then nothing can. That means that social and political realities such as WWI, the Treaty of Versailles, hyperinflation, and the Great Depression are totally irrelevant to an understanding of this era. Only the study of Wagnerian opera can be relevant to understanding this entire period of history.
In essence, Nazi opera conspiracy theories are the ultimate logical consequence of Goldhagenism, where the monocausal origin of the Holocaust is localised in toto to a single point of cultural origin: Wagnerian opera. It provides the ultimate justification for Daniel Goldhagen's central thesis that:
"Genocide was immanent in the conversation of German society. It was immanent in its language and emotion. It was immanent in the structure of cognition." Daniel Goldhagen: Hitler's Willing Executioners, p.449.
And immanent in works of art, such as those of Wagner, which are allegedly deeply pervaded with this "structure of cognition". Once this monocausal paradigm is accepted, Wagner's operas are all conveniently and retrospectively reinterpreted to forcibly fit into the structure of the Goldhagen thesis; and, in a circular argument, the interpretations then proffered as "incontestable" evidence of its "immanent" validity.
In this view of history, Wagner becomes the sole playwright and mastermind of world-history with Hitler his obedient opera impresario, as WWII and the Holocaust are reduced to nothing more than grand opera. The Nazi party become an opera company in disguise that used the Reichstag as its opera house. Köhler even tells us Hitler publicly announced on radio that as Wagner's puppet he was rendered utterly helpless but to be demoniacally controlled by his Satanic Lord, and that only “he who gave this task” could “release” him from it. It is a Nazi opera conspiracy theory expounded out in hysterically morbid detail by Köhler.
Several devastating critiques of Köhler have been published by major academic historians specialising in this era. The first of these came from Sir Ian Kershaw, which were relegated to the footnotes at the back of his landmark biography of Hitler.
"It is nevertheless a gross oversimplification and distortion to reduce the Third Reich to the outcome of Hitler's alleged mission to fulfil Wagner's vision, as does Köhler, in Wagners Hitler". Kershaw: Endnote 121 from Hitler: 1889-1936—Hubris.
"Köhler's, 'Wagners Hitler', takes this [reduction of history to opera] on to a new plane, however, with his overdrawn claim that Hitler came to see it as his life's work to fulfil Wagner's visions and put his ideas into practice." Kershaw: Endnote 129 from Hitler: 1889-1936—Hubris.
The idea of Hitler being driven by Wagner's "vision" comes from Kubizek about whom Kershaw writes:
"Kubizek's account [of the Rienzi story], is, however, highly fanciful, reading in mystical fashion back into the episode an early prophetic vision of Hitler's own future. Plainly, the strange evening had made a lasting impression on Kubizek. ... Hitler seized on the story to illustrate his early prophetic qualities to his hostess, Winifred Wagner, ending with the words: 'in that hour, it began' (Kubizek, p. 118). Kubizek, more impressed than ever, subsequently produced his post-war, highly imaginary depiction, with the melodramatically absurd claim at the forefront of his mind. This has not prevented the 'vision' on the Freinberg being taken seriously by some later writers. See e.g. Joachim Köhler, 'Wagners Hitler' ch.2, p.34-5 [German ed]." Sir Ian Kershaw: Hitler 1889-1936—Hubris. Endnote 128.
Even more damning of Köhler was Sir Richard J. Evans in a review published in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 149-150. In this review Evans wrote:
". . . to make Wagner directly responsible for the nazi extermination of the Jews, as Köhler does, is hardly plausible. Köhler achieves this only by erecting dizzying and unstable structures of inference and correspondence, in which phrases and quotations are time and again ripped from their context in the writings or sayings of Hitler and Wagner and made to look as if they are saying the same thing. None of this is remotely persuasive."
Evans was especially scathing about Köhler's reliance on widely discredited sources:
"Nor is Köhler's credibility helped by his reliance on dubious and discredited sources such as Rauschning's Hitler Speaks, a record of interviews most of which never took place outside Rauschning's mind."
Concerning Rauschning, Kershaw says:
"I have on no single occasion cited Hermann Rauschning's 'Hitler Speaks', a work now regarded to have so little authenticity that it is best to disregard it altogether." Sir Ian Kershaw: Hitler 1889-1936: Nemesis
By way of contrast, Köhler states:
"It is hardly possible that what Rauschning subsequently recorded is merely the product of his imagination – it resembles too closely the secret doctrines of the Bayreuth inner circle." Köhler p238.
The only justification for using Rauschning is that "it is hardly possible" for it not to be authentic, and therefore it is authentic, thus proving his case.
Instead of reading Köhler's pulp fiction in the guise of history, readers should look at any serious mainstream academic historian's account of the Dritte Reich or Holocaust written by recognised authorities on the era, such as Sir Ian Kershaw, Sir Richard Evans, Saul Friedländer, Peter Longerich, Hans Mommsen, Christopher Browning, Frank McDonough, or John Toland. Not a single one of these historians traces the origins of WWII and the Holocaust to nineteenth century opera. Since the publication of Köhler's book, not a single major historian has come even close to remotely throwing decades of academic research in the bin in order to replace it with Köhler's narrative where Hitler is seen as some puppet forced by his Master to enact a Satanic operatic plot for genocide and world domination secretly encrypted by Wagner into his works. The disconnection between the Nazi opera conspiracy literature and that of mainstream academic historiography seems to be total. Nazi opera conspiracy theorists seem to be writing in a parallel universe that totally ignores mainstream academic historiography, or even rewrites history according to its own fantasy narrative. Mainstream historians universally ignore Nazi opera conspiracies with the same contempt they reserve for Nazi UFO conspiracies claiming that flying saucers are Nazi secret weapons for their impending world domination.
For example if you read Christopher Browning's seminal book "The Origins of the Final Solution" you will find that it completely ignores Köhler's Nazi opera conspiracies. Browning fails to even so much as once mention Richard Wagner's name, let alone accepting the "chilling and... persuasive... thesis that Hitler based his entire philosophy and the whole Nazi apparatus on ideas explicitly drawn from Wagner's writings and operas” as arts journalist Anne Midgette summarised Köhler as saying in the New York Times in an article published on the 14th October 2001.
The reason for Köhler's outright dismissal by mainstream historians is summarised by Sir Richard J. Evans:
"[Wagner's] influence on Hitler has often been exaggerated. Hitler never referred to Wagner as a source of his own antisemitism, and there is no evidence that he actually read any of Wagner's writings." Evans: The Third Reich in Power.
Hitler's private library does not even contain any of Wagner's prose writings, although it does contain a leather bound complete edition of Shakespeare suggesting that an equally good case could be made for "Shakespeare's Hitler: the Prophet and his Disciple". Nonetheless, this does not stop Köhler claiming that Hitler "knew every word" of Wagner's prose writings, particular his essay "Judaism in Music". Köhler provides no evidence whatsoever to substantiate his claim.
The best explanation for why neither Hitler nor any other major Party member ever referred to "Judaism in Music" comes from the great Israeli Holocaust scholar Saul Friedländer in the book "Richard Wagner im Dritten Reich" that is also scathingly critical of Köhler:
"One can interpret Wagner's first anti-Judaic pamphlet not as a call for the annihilation of the Jews, but rather read it as the appeal for the elevation of Judaism as a culture, in order to remove the 'Jewish spirit' ... Can the Jews be liberated of their 'Jewish spirit' like Börne? To Hitler it must have all seemed ideologically unacceptable." Saul Friedländer: Richard Wagner im Dritten Reich. My translation from the published German version.
In the 1869 version of this essay, Wagner makes it clear that he wants his essay to be understood as a call for the "Assimilation" of the Jews. In the original version he calls for Jew and German to become "united and without difference" (einig und ununterschieden).
Joachim Fest likewise scathingly dismissed Köhler's book as a "polemic" before saying:
"First through revolution, the opposites of Jew and non-Jew are annulled in an aesthetic world-order, where they will emerge 'united and without difference' from one another. [H]e saw in the Jews, not a biological element, but rather a symptom of the illness of a materialist civilisation, where once it has been overcome, the Jews are freed of the daemonic power that drives civilisation to its decay. With Hitler it is totally different. He thought of all Jews as being undeliverable from the stigma bound to their ancestry and blood, from which they could never get away." Joachim Fest: Richard Wagner im Dritten Reich. My translation.
Evans, Kershaw, Fest and Friedländer are some of the genuine heavyweights in this era, and they were unanimous in their outright rejection of Köhler's Nazi opera conspiracy theories. The reason is simply that if historians were to accept the Nazi opera conspiracy theorist's idea that Wagner was the dominant, or even just a large, ideological influence on Hitler and the National Socialist movement, all of the most respected Hitler biographies by mainstream academic historians would have to be thrown in the rubbish bin to be replaced with biographies of Hitler stating the his main aim was realising Wagner's "vision" by enacting opera on the world's stage. The entire history of National Socialism as it stands in current mainstream historical studies would likewise have to be shredded and rewritten to state that the party was actually an opera company in disguise whose diabolical goal was to realise Hitler's secret operatic "vision". The impact of accepting Nazi opera conspiracy theories on the historiography of this era would be almost as massive as accepting Holocaust denialism. It would involve a wholesale rewriting of history as mainstream academic historians currently understand it. Libraries full of studies would have to be thrown out to make room for the mainstreaming of Nazi opera conspiracy theories.
Oddly enough, opera conspiracy theorists show little evidence of having even the slightest awareness of the current trends in thought within the large academic historiographic literature on this period of history. They ignore this huge body of literature as though they regarded it with utter contempt and disdain. It is an arrogant contempt for mainstream historiography that they fully share with their Holocaust denialist colleagues. Unfortunately for Nazi opera conspiracy theorist, academic historians, on the other hand, are fully aware of Nazi opera conspiracy theories, and they have been as unequivocally dismissive of them as they have been of Holocaust denialist pseudo-histories. Historians have staunchly refused to rewrite history according to the aggressive demands of either Nazi opera conspiracy theorists or Holocaust denialists.
Even the methodologies used by the Nazi opera conspiracy theorists are unethical. They make up fictitious citations, ascribe apocryphal or fictitious quotations to Hitler, tamper with evidence by doctoring quotations to suit their purposes, wilfully misquote passages out of context, and falsely ascribe quotations by Hitler and other National Socialists to Wagner—who was by that age long dead. It is a malicious reinvention of history that is as perverse as any. If historians were to permit historiological methodology to sink to the level of the gutter like this, they would leave the door wide open to the acceptance of every perversion of history ranging from Nazi UFO conspiracies to Holocaust denialism.
Moreover, as Kershaws says, to reduce the origins of the ideological foundations of National Socialist thought down to a single point source such as Wagner would be "a gross oversimplification and distortion". It is is moreover a simplification that has its roots in National Socialist propaganda itself, which made malicious claims to have its origins in great German art and culture in order to give itself false airs of legitimacy. It is a piece of oversimplified propagandist nonsense designed for mass consumption, since the origins of National Socialist thought are immeasurably more diverse and nebulous than than. To put it in Richard J. Evans' words:
"No sensible historian has argued that the total package of Nazism was present in earlier social or political movements or ideologies. What historians have tried to do is to find out where the different parts of Nazi ideology came from."
Evans: Rereading German History.
Least of all, no sensible historian would ever claim that the "total package of Nazism" was present wholesale in just the writings of a single nineteenth century opera composer whose "vision" Hitler allegedly set out to fulfil.
With this you can understand how, after decades of piecing together the detailed puzzle as to the origins of National Socialism, it is incredibly exasperating, and even profoundly insulting to them when someone without a background in academic historiography comes along and arrogantly makes sweeping claims backed with little more than unequivocal assertions of total infallibility that it all originated from Richard Wagner.
In the meanwhile, a whole gaggle of Nazi opera conspiracists currently occupy positions in the art and culture studies departments of academia where they write as though their opera conspiracy theories can be accepted as gospel. They form what Mark Berry has called the "Wagner UFO fraternity" - a fraternity who noddingly peer review one another's writings and approve them for publication in academic journals and books. The end result is a total disconnection between cultural commentators who frivolously entertain such speculative Nazi opera conspiracies, and mainstream academic historians who dismiss them with exasperated contempt. Thus if the reader goes from historiographies by mainstream historians to the world of Nazi opera conspiracies, the yawning divide is just as great as that between mainstream historiography and the Nazi UFO conspiracy literature. Both Nazi opera and UFO theorists seem to live in a strange parallel universe where they write oblivious to the realities of mainstream academic historical studies.
This is the reason why when Evans reviewed Ian Kershaw's two volume biography of Hitler at the same time as he reviewed Joachim Köhler's "Wagner's Hitler: the Prophet and his Disciple", he dismissed Köhler as not even being even "remotely persuasive". Evans then added that :
"Speculations of this kind are a world away in every sense from the most substantial of the books under review here, Ian Kershaw's massive two-volume biography of Hitler." Evans: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), p. 150 (my bold emphasis)
In other words, these Nazi opera conspiracy theories resemble Nazi UFO conspiracies in that they are - in every sense - totally off the planet and out of this world.